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Idaho's Arts Capital 

I think I was about halfway through my Ginger Tofu wrap, and about three-quarters of the way through a pint of carrot/beet/celery/spinach juice when a woman in her late 80s sat down at the table next to me. She folded a small bar napkin over her lap and started gazing over the choices of tofu and other vegan-friendly options. I think I heard her order tempeh -- but it wasn't what she ordered that made me smile. It was the fact that she, a brittle old woman, was sitting next to me at a very yuppie, very frou-frou vegetarian restaurant right downtown. It was a sight for sore eyes, watching her pick up her fork and pick at a salad of organic greens. It was then, in that tiny event, when I realized that Boise was not merely a big town; it's a real city.

Because there are fundamental things that differentiate a city from a town -- the bustling streets, the packed cafes, the old women in their lace gloves saddling up to a bar next to a kid in a studded Ramones jacket. This was what I was looking for when I got on a plane to Boise, Idaho. What is it, I wanted to know, that's making Boise grow into a real city so much more quickly than Spokane?

There are plenty of everyday towns across the Northwest -- Pasco and Prineville; Medford and Longview; Great Falls, Idaho Falls and Klamath Falls -- that watch cities from the sidelines. Probably all great places to live, but they're too easily passed on the interstate. Places that will always be second place. They'll always be the bridesmaid, and never that beautiful Seattle or Portland bride.

Right in between there, somewhere in size between St. Maries and Seattle, lay Spokane and Boise -- two small cities struggling for their civic identities. The difference between them is that Boise's on its way to becoming a big city. Spokane's still teetering, trying to figure out how to take that next step.

From what I saw there over three days last week, Boise has pulled itself out of its depressed, middle-class suburban muck by its bootstraps, established a booming downtown and a thriving nightlife scene. It has a citizen-friendly attitude that not only entertains and stimulates residents and visitors alike, but makes them proud to live there.

But in Spokane, it's not like people aren't proud to live here - it's just that they aren't going to gloat about our city's finest attributes. Maybe it's part of Spokane's adolescence, and it will all pass like voice changes and tenth-grade crushes. Or is this it? Should Spokane just feel victorious in the race to the middle and throw up its hands in complacent victory? Or should we take a cue from Boise, a small city once very much like Spokane? In talking to locals, I was told that Boise residents stopped feeling sorry for themselves, stopped making excuses and made the best of what they had. And what they created is a vibrant little city in the middle of southern Idaho -- where, surprisingly, diversity, culture and creativity thrive.

Boise Ahead, Spokane Trailing ...

From the time we deplaned, it only took us a few minutes to see that there's something different about Boise. The airport is filled with original artwork boasting the lakes, rivers and trails of the area. Colored glass chandeliers hang in the airport food court. And more differences were visible when we entered downtown.

Spokane is filled with original public art, but it has seen few new additions recently. Boise currently has more than 45 pieces of original public art, with some of its most recent additions done by non-Boise residents who love the city -- including Spokane artists.

Spokane is lucky to have a handful of Native American tribes within driving distance. Boise? It has an entire downtown city block designating the significance of the Basque population in its history.

Boise just recently moved its arts commission into City Hall, and also formed advisory committees comprised of the city's most influential arts, business and development leaders. The city of Boise boasts its acceptance of the arts, posting the "Ten Characteristics of a Healthy Arts Community" on its Web site for all to see.

Spokane has successful theater troupes, a symphony, a well-attended First Night celebration that scads of Spokanites pencil onto their calendars each year - but they are all things that seem more overlooked than attended by many residents. In Boise, those same types of art events are not only well-attended, but are looked at as the thing to do on any given night. The arts are, from my impression, at the very center of Boisean life.

Spokane, on the other hand, just dismissed one full-time employee and one half-time employee from its City Arts Commission and eliminated the biannual Visual Arts Tour, a move spawned by major budget cuts described by City Hall as the "Priorities of Government." This process is described on spokanecity.org as "an alternative approach, asking the City to go back to the basics of what citizens want from their government."

The arts and the quality of life they provide for Spokane citizens, clearly, are not a priority.

All It Takes...

Sandy Harthorn, curator of art at the Boise Art Museum, says people don't have to be art lovers to buy into the idea that the arts are a great way to keep a city healthy. Often, she says, Boise leaders simply see "that the economy will flourish and the city will thrive. It's getting the planners and the arts organizations involved in the economy prospering through the arts and creative thinking."

Harthorn is explaining how the arts became a priority in Boise from her office only a paint splash away from a tall Chuck Close painting and the works of several other internationally known artists. The museum has been a part of Boise's arts community since way back. Musings of the museum began back in the 1930s, with it fully materializing as a gallery before World War II.

Harthorn, who also serves on the Boise Arts Commission's Visual Arts Advisory and Advocacy committees, says that back in the late 1980s, Boise didn't understand the arts -- and it was paying the price.

"Downtown was very dead," she recalls.

Harthorn remembers the turning point: When Boise started viewing the arts community less as a "government priority" and more as a major economic asset. This all came after the city council was advised on how beneficial the arts could truly be by officials from Portland.

"Once the city council understood the arts could impact the community in such a positive way, there was all this support," she says.

Karen Bubb, public arts manager for the Boise City Arts Commission, says that when Boise's leaders started believing that the arts could help their city, the entire attitude of government shifted.

"The city has gotten that supporting the arts is supporting the soul of the city, and it's a form of marketing," Bubb says. "It's seeing the arts as something that's integral to government, not separate from it."

Bubb and Harthorn agree that both current Mayor David Bieter and former Mayor Brent Coles are mostly responsible for understanding what the arts can and have done for Boise.

"The mayor's gotta want it," Harthorn says. "It was dead as a doornail before all of this happened," she continues. "You walk down any street in Boise now, and you see a project or something supported by the Boise Arts Commission."

But it wasn't local painters and poets who convinced the city to shift its attitude -- the numbers are what closed the deal. The mayor and the city council were banking on the results of Americans for the Arts' Art & amp; Economic Prosperity project -- a study that measured the economic impact of nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences. In a survey of 91 U.S cities, the foundation found that, of the 40,000 arts events surveyed, the average attendee spends $21.75, with out-of-town attendees spending $38.05. When Boise looked at itself, the city realized the average Boisean spent a comparable number, shelling out between $16 and $19 for an arts event. That's money spent on parking, fish and chips or a steak before the event and a few Grey Goose martinis afterward. And Boise found that out-of-towners were even better -- spending closer to $45 on the day of an arts event. What's more, those numbers don't include the cost of admission tickets.

Boise realized that money like that adds up; suddenly, the arts' creativity was a winning hand that the city couldn't wait to lay on the table. The arts, in other words, could drive downtown. It was a gamble they were willing to take.

It worked.

In 2000, the arts generated $18 million in economic activity -- resulting in $500,000 in city taxes -- and created more than 600 full-time jobs. Spokane has comparable numbers, but the difference is that Boise's focusing in on those and leading the city in an artistic direction in hopes of driving the economy even more.

"Looking at the comprehensive plan, [art] is on the city's agenda, and that's been an essential part of activating arts in Boise," Bubb says. "It's in the plans."

Boise's got art on its mind, and Spokane should listen to the people here who preach that the arts are the way to take that step toward being more of a city than a town. Painters can do more for a city than just make pretty pictures.

A Creative Mindset

And since the arts were penciled onto the priority list by the city of Boise, things started moving in a more creative direction. In 2001, Boise passed the "Percent for Public Arts" ordinance, meaning that 1.4 percent of municipal capital projects were required to include some sort of art -- be it fountain, mural or sculpture. It's something that Washington has had for years, but unlike Spokane's occasional neighborhood mural, that requirement seems more visible. They even have a glossy map directing visitors to the various installations.

The effects of the Percent for Public Arts law have hardly gone unnoticed. As we drive down Ninth Street in afternoon traffic, Bubb points out a glowing green arching sculpture in front of a downtown skyscraper, even though you couldn't miss it if you tried. That's the point of public art, she says.

"The idea [with public art] is that pedestrian activity in a downtown center is good. Public art will get people out of their cars and onto the streets and into stores and restaurants," she says.

Maybe that's why Boise's planning on spending nearly $60,000 on public art projects this year -- ranging from water features at the Boise airport to new entrance signs in city parks. Art is an investment.

But public art is about more than just money in Boise; it's also about promoting the region, parading Boise's assets, honoring the city's history, bringing in tourists and -- listen up, Spokane -- cultivating civic pride.

And by public art, Boise's not talking kids' finger-painted murals. These are carefully fashioned bike racks promoting literacy, 50-foot high river murals that steam and fog at night, tablets promoting human rights and bronze totems recognizing Pacific Northwest native cultures. Art is everywhere here, flying by on the buses and engraved in the sidewalks.

"What we're trying to do with public art is root and identify, but also look toward the future so newcomers can feel welcomed into the community," Bubb says.

Welcoming everyone into the art community is an attitude that everyone in Boise has adopted -- even at the most posh of art galleries. Walking through the Stewart Gallery's current exhibit of work from the Pilchuck School, owner Stephanie Wilde says that the whole purpose of having a gallery in Boise's nouveau arts community is to be accepting and to educate.

"When you're in the arts, and your city doesn't have a vibrant arts scene, you have to be very creative. You have to bend but not compromise," she says. "One thing I've always done is try to educate people and make art accessible to people of all economic levels."

It's that overarching attitude that art is good for everyone that makes Boise feel so much further ahead in the arts than Spokane.

The Little People

"There isn't anything within a day's drive," says Cynthia Sewell, arts and entertainment editor at Boise Weekly, that city's version of The Inlander. "We're 400 miles from Portland. That geographic isolation has something to do with [Boise's arts scene]."

And because it's in the middle of nowhere, Sewell says that the locals took it upon themselves to bring the culture they wanted to the downtown center.

"We've had people come to town and stay," she says. "A lot of people have such a vested interest in the community that they keep coming back."

We're sitting at the downtown Flying M Coffeehouse, a large bohemian space filled with kitschy vintage couches and papered with original artwork. It's an offbeat little place, but it's hardly filled with the young artistes that you'd think; a businessman types on his laptop to the left of us, two sweatshirt-clad coeds pore over textbooks behind us, a group of punks (Minor Threat, H & uuml;sker D & uuml; punks -- not the Good Charlotte, Simple Plan kind) comes through the doors to order their daily dose.

Sewell says a lot of the native Boiseans she knows left at 17 or 18, but most willingly came back to their hometown. She says that every time someone comes back, they bring back a little of the outside world with them. That's helped Boise.

"I think the biggest thing is exposing Idahoans to what is happening elsewhere," she says.

And in all those years when Boise's arts scene was suffering and the kids were leaving, there were a few locals who made sure the scene didn't die.

Tim Johnstone was one of them. He's the owner of the Record Exchange, a music store in downtown Boise that's a major supporter of local bands and zines -- the purveyor of used CDs and ground zero for all things music, culture and nightlife. It's Boise's equivalent of Boo Radley's, the Spike Coffeehouse and Unified Groove Merchants all rolled into one.

"Before downtown was revitalized, we were it," he says, noting that while the store has always supported the suffering local artists, they were the ones that hosted in-store performances by Ben Harper, Smashing Pumpkins and Keb Mo during those slow years.

Johnstone says that the Record Exchange gave the formerly buttoned-down Boise a cultured pulse during a time when there was practically no downtown heartbeat. And they've kept on assisting that crucial scene even since the revitalization -- closely advising the Boise-based Bravo Entertainment (owners of Spokane's Big Easy) about which bands would do well in town, and endorsing the more niche-y shows at the nearby Neurolux bar.

Johnstone says that all his store did was support what Boise had to offer, hoping they could help make it into the town that downtowners wanted.

"It's all about supporting the people," he says. "[The Boise scene] sort of all came together at a time when it was all perfect for it to take off."

The same was the case for Carol Skinner, the president of the Flicks -- Boise's equivalent of the (now defunct) Magic Lantern. Unlike the Spokane movie house, she's kept her independent theater running for the last 20 years with support from locals.

"We lost money the first seven of our 20 years in business," she says. "We believed in our concept and drained our private resources to provide the Flicks for the community until they learned to appreciate it.

"We thought of giving up, but I kept thinking our concept would catch on," Skinner continues. "After all, who wouldn't want to see great art films, have a glass of wine or beer or an espresso drink and great food in a clean and beautiful environment?"

It's places like these -- the Flicks, the Record Exchange, the Flying M, the Basque restaurants, the local distillery, the ambitious local galleries and loyal artists -- that make Boise tick. And it's seeing what those establishments and creative individuals do for the city that makes local officials want to back them up.

It's all of that rolled together that suddenly makes Boise feel like a big city. And it also suddenly makes Spokane's budget slicing and artistically indifferent attitude seem very backward -- and very average.

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